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Virgin Galactic’s new SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, flew a first trial Thursday as the company continues to develop the newest version of its space-tourism vehicle. Virgin Galactic called the test, which lasted 3 hours and 43 minutes, a “captive carry” trial, during which the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft carried the space vehicle throughout the flight to monitor performance. Two test pilots were on board SpaceShipTwo, while WhiteKnightTwo (named VMS Eve) had a crew of two pilots and a flight test engineer, according to the company's website. WhiteKnightTwo is designed to carry SpaceShipTwo to about 50,000 feet, where the space vehicle will detach from the carrier and launch into space with a rocket engine.

“With this flight in the books, our team will now analyze a mountain of flight data, learning what worked well and what could be improved for our next flight test,” Virgin Galactic said on its website. “Only when that analysis is done, along with detailed vehicle inspections, some already-planned work, and potentially more captive carry flights, will we be ready to move into the next phase of test flight.” The test flight was a milestone for Virgin Galactic nearly two years after the previous SpaceShipTwo crashed in the Mojave Desert in October 2014, killing the copilot and injuring the pilot. The new vehicle includes design changes to make it more failsafe, as the crash was found to be caused by the copilot prematurely unlocking the vehicle’s tail, causing it to break up.

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Two GA airplanes collided Wednesday morning at the Carrolton, Georgia, airport, killing all three people on board the aircraft. Photos from a WSBTV helicopter show wreckage just south of Runway 35 at West Georgia Regional Airport. An instructor and her student from a flight school in Newnan, Georgia, were flying a Diamond DA20, while another pilot was flying a Beech Bonanza from College Park, according to NBC News. Both were approaching to land and collided about 100 yards from the runway threshold, the report said.

The FAA and NTSB went to the scene. An NTSB investigator said the debris area was 300 to 400 long, with the Bonanza wreckage found inverted on top of the Diamond, according to the NBC report. The collision occurred about 10:54 a.m. West Georgia Regional is a single-runway, non-towered airport west of Atlanta.

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There’s been a lot of talk lately about a shortage of pilots for both military and civilian jobs, and now the U.S. Air Force says it has to hire private contractors to fly its drones. The contract drone pilots are not allowed to fire weapons, but they can operate reconnaissance missions, according to a story in this week’s New York Times. The number of contract pilots is classified information, but Pentagon officials told the Times there are at least “several hundred” working in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“This is opening up a whole new can of worms,” Laura A. Dickinson, a George Washington University law professor who studies the outsourcing of war, told the Times. “With drones, this is a new area where we already do not have a lot of transparency, and with contractors operating drones there’s no clearly defined regime of oversight and accountability.” Military officials told the Times it’s difficult to recruit drone operators because the work is stressful yet tedious, and the operators are sometimes targeted by enemies who claim the drones kill civilians.

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Drones hovering over fires have often been the bane of firefighters, but now special versions of the unmanned aircraft are going to be put to work on emergency response teams. The New York City Fire Department is training some of its crews to deploy bright red drones to view fires using video and infrared cameras, according to a New York Times report. Unlike the popular types of consumer drones that can sell for a few hundred or a few thousand dollars, the FDNY’s first drone costs $85,000, with two more to come this year.

They’ll be used for larger fires to help assess response with one pilot and one observer for each drone, with a monitor to see fires from above. “It’s more situational awareness of what’s going on at the scene,” a firefighter told the Times. “It’s another view.” The drones will have some physical and legal limitations for the time being, since they’re unable to fly freely through the city in response to fire calls, the Times reported. Under arrangements with the FAA, the department must get a clearance to dispatch a drone, which officials said would take about 15 minutes. The aircraft will also be tethered, so it can fly up and down within 200 feet of the ground as it feeds live video to the monitor. The department called this a big step in firefighting technology. But officials in the Times report also noted that it’s “without a doubt the most boring drone you’ve ever seen in your life. All it does is goes up, and it stays there.”

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AVweb’s search of news in aviation found announcements from Able Flight, Partners in Aviation, L-3 Aviation Products and Yingling Aviation. Able Flight and Lockheed Martin announced a scholarship to aid wounded warriors of the United States armed services. The Lockheed Martin Fighting Spirit Scholarship provides sports and physical activity programs for wounded veterans. Partners in Aviation, recently formed by business aviation sales and marketing veterans Mark Molloy and Tom Bertels, is launching its principal offering, PIA Co-Ownership. The comprehensive program matches two prospective owners with low to medium usage requirements and based in a common geographical area, enabling them to own and operate a new or late-model aircraft at approximately half the cost of individual ownership.

L-3 Aviation Products and ATP Flight School announced that L-3’s Lynx NGT-9000 has been selected as the ADS-B solution for 100 of the school’s 250-plus training aircraft, with the option for additional units as the fleet expands. Deliveries of the Lynx units will continue through the end of 2016, ahead of the 2020 ADS-B mandate. Yingling Aviation has announced it is creating a dealer network for the comprehensively remanufactured Ascend 172. Air Orlando Sales Inc. at Orlando Executive Airport in Orlando, Florida, and Suburban Aviation Inc. at Suburban Toledo Airport in northwest Ohio will sell the Ascend 172 and provide localized, rapid and responsive support to its customers, based on the same standards and procedures established at Yingling.

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The Weekender's off for another mini-vacation, this time to take in pilot-friendly events found on The 10th Annual Triple Tree Aerodrome Fly-In in South Carolina kicks off Wednesday with arrivals throughout the day for a long weekend of workshops and seminars for GA pilots. EAA Chairman/CEO Jack Pelton will speak on a variety of topics on Friday, and AOPA President Mark Baker will hold a Town Hall meeting Saturday morning.  

Show off your airplane and celebrate the birthday of the Western Antique Aeroplane & Automobile Museum Saturday and Sunday in Hood River, Oregon. Arrive Friday for a pilots-only night and camp underwing. Weekend events for all include biplane rides, pilot seminars and a WAAM Restoration Shop Open House.

On Saturday in Rogers, Arkansas, Take Off for Kids will host a fundraiser the Wright Flight Program of the Tailwind Aviation Foundation. Join in on a five-airport poker run, spot landing contest, flight timing contest and flour drop, all with prizes for the top participants. 

The Brooks Field 85th Anniversary Historic Fly-In in Marshall, Michigan will honor amphibious aircraft with a free breakfast all amphibious PICs. The event, in conjunction with the city’s historic home tour event, also features a car show and exhibits including Honor Flight, the Civil Air Patrol, Air National Guard and West Michigan Flight Academy, offering simulator time for kids.

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My brother slipped me a piece of paper on which he’d jotted three numbers: 260, 240 and 180. If you haven’t guessed, they’re weights. Add me and the load is 860 pounds well-marbled (not 170-pound), above-average Americans. Add full tanks, 56 gallons of fuel and we would approach gross weight. I had yet to add backpacks, fly-fishing gear and food for a week, but after that I’d have to start trading fuel for payload, and worry about CG as well. Welcome to the world of gross-weight ops.

For me, the biggest concern in gross-weight operations is an unsafe CG, poor takeoff/climb performance—especially on hot days, at high altitudes and short fields—followed by structural issues (hard landings). If you fly a twin, I suspect single-engine performance could trump any of the above.

Gross Weight is Fungible

Can you safely fly above your aircraft’s maximum gross takeoff weight, or MGTOW? Absolutely. It does not apply to us regular Part 91 folks, but in certain circumstances Part 121 and 135 operators in Alaska are allowed to exceed MGTOW by 15 percent. This is based on the need to carry additional survival gear in the remote wilds of Alaska.

This kicker is where we begin to see FAA add variances to accommodate risk management. Clearly the laws of physics are the same in Alaska, but the trade-off in carrying extra safety gear is viewed as more important than the structural and performance-based limits of the aircraft.

The FAA can also waiver in higher gross weights for additional fuel required for ferry flights or record setting. Sixty years ago, Jerrie Mock became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe solo in a plane. Her plane was a 1953 Cessna 180, which is now in the Udvar-Hazy Center, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s annex. It’s one year olderer than my 180, but equipped with a 183-gallon fuel tank, putting it 900 pounds over gross.

In 1959, Max Conrad took off in a Piper Comanche loaded 2000 pounds over gross and flew nonstop from Casablanca to Los Angeles. I am guessing Max and Jerrie had long takeoff rolls and shallow climbs. And I bet they winced at any sign of turbulence while fully loaded. They were safe, but they were flying a less-forgiving and -tolerant airframe than designers intended.

Another way to legally exceed MGTOW is via a supplemental type certificate. For example, adding more horsepower to an airframe often comes with a corresponding gross weight increase because it improves climb performance on a robust airframe that likely skated past the G-loading and drop tests. For my 180, adding 18 inches to the wingtips and some internal structural stiffening earned a 400-pound useful load increase, which helped make it possible to carry my brother and his spawn.

I’ve heard many pilots admitting to flying over MGTOW, in some cases routinely. Is it unsafe? Is being a test pilot unsafe? If you load a plane over gross, you are taking it outside the approved (and known) performance envelope. Flying over gross also reflects a careless attitude and defiance of the rules, both known “at-risk” behaviors that begin the accident chain. But perhaps the most irresponsible thing about flying over gross is it often involves passengers innocent of the risk. Which means the PIC is subjecting others to risk without their full knowledge or consent. If for no other reason, it is not responsible or professional behavior.

Overcoming Conditioning

Remember that exhilaration you felt soloing? How the plane climbed like a scalded cat once the portly instructor vacated the right seat? Gross-weight takeoffs have the opposite feeling. Instead of seeing blue sky, you will be seeing tree tops for an extended period of time.

The most common issue with an overloaded aircraft is failure to launch. Even in the best of conditions, an overloaded aircraft will have a shallow, anemic climb. Add a rough runway surface, a hot day, a high-altitude airport and an obstruction, and the takeoff attempt may not end well.

The AOPA Air Safety Institute’s 22nd Annual Nall report summarized the aircraft accidents (nine total; one fatal) related to weight and density altitude in 2011. One of it conclusions: “ deaths resulted from the seven accidents arising from delayed decisions to abort takeoff attempts. Overruns tend to be safer than trying to force an aircraft to fly.”

Conditioning is one reason pilots misjudge gross-weight takeoff performance. Most of our flight time is logged at well below gross weight. We get used to the way the plane jumps into the sky alone or with a single passenger. While pilots are book smart on the degraded performance that comes with gross weights, takeoff performance at gross weight is truly experiential learning.

You owe it to yourself and your passengers to not be caught off-guard. There is no mistaking the sharp-edged awareness of an approaching 50-foot obstacle or the dawning reality of the need to use two-thirds of the available runway. It isn’t something we typically practice, but when you fill the seats and tanks, that conditioning is something you’ll experience first-hand.

One gross weight fallacy is the mistaken belief that because it is certified and the legal measure of aircraft performance capability, it is somehow always achievable and therefore something a pilot is entitled to. Emphatically, it is not. Maximum operating weight is basically what it takes to get safely into and out of a given airstrip. Sometimes maximum operating weight is the same as MGTOW but not always. More often than not, the limiting procedure is the takeoff and departure climb.

“The maximum allowable weight for an aircraft is determined by design considerations,” according to the FAA’s Weight and Balance Handbook. “However, the maximum operational weight may be less than the maximum allowable weight due to such considerations as high-density altitude or high-drag field conditions caused by wet grass or water on the runway. The maximum operational weight may also be limited by the departure or arrival airport’s runway length”

Lessons from a Short Strip

When I took my brother and his sons into the Idaho wilderness this summer, I initially dropped them off at Cabin Creek (I08), a rugged Forest Service airstrip. It features a one-way landing with no go-round possibility, but its relatively long runway (by backcountry standards) goes uphill, which makes it great at arresting the energy of a fully loaded plane. Cabin Creek is within my 180’s max operational weight and max gross weight for landing, and also for a gross weight takeoff when the air is cool and density altitude is low.

When I joined them a few days later, I landed upstream at a more challenging airstrip. Compared to Cabin Creek, it is rougher, more obstructed, and much shorter, roughly 900-1000 feet. On takeoffs, you’d better be in the air at 700 or the creek bank and trees will offer you an unwelcome view. In my plane, near-gross landing would require an early touchdown and a lot of brakes, but full gross takeoff is not an option. Ever.

Given the short and challenging nature of this strip, I decided to land with less than half-full tanks. That would ensure I could comfortably depart solo, just my backpack and me. The plan was to join my above-average family for a couple days of fishing, then send them back downstream and pick them up at the much longer Cabin Creek airstrip. Unfortunately, I had not planned for the challenge of stream crossing. My brother and his sons had such a harrowing experience fording the swollen stream to join me at my plane-side campsite there was no way they were going to ford the stream again for the hike back to Cabin Creek. It was a dilemma. Abandon them, head to a town to find someone with a higher performing plane, or take them out one at a time.

I decided on the last option, but decided I’d first take out their gear, about 150 lbs. If that went well, I would come back and start taking them out to Cabin Creek one at a time, first the 180-pound nephew, then the 240-pounder and finally the 260-pound patriarch. Apart from the distances, the most notable effect of the ever-increasing weight was the increasingly shallow climb angle.

Full Gross Ending

After the morning of shuttles to Cabin Creek, my family entourage retreated to the lodge at Sulphur Creek (ID74). The next morning I ferried the packs out to Challis, Idaho (KLLJ), and called a buddy with a 182 to haul them home to Idaho Falls. I returned to have a filling breakfast, which Sulphur Creek lodge is known for, and watched the planes leaving as the summer morning grew warmer. It came time to leave. After departing the 1800-foot long Cabin Creek runway with the same passenger list the day before, I felt pretty comfortable with the 3300-foot runway at Sulphur Creek. It should be a breeze, I thought.

When we left Cabin Creek fully loaded at 4200 feet elevation at 7 the morning before, the outside air temperature was in the low-50s F. High barometric pressure meant density altitude and field elevation were roughly the same. That max-gross weight takeoff from an 1800-foot-long runway should make the 3300 feet available seem luxurious.

My feeling was reinforced when I took off from Sulphur Creek in the early morning to shuttle packs. The air was cool, the plane was light, and I climbed straight out and was able to clear the ridge at 8500 feet without even trying. For my gross-weight departure, however, temperatures were climbing into the mid-60s, pushing density altitude beyond 7000 feet.

After making sure everyone was belted in, I firewalled the throttle. The plane accelerated, and accelerated, but did not lift. I kept waiting for the dramatic climb I had experienced in the morning. It didn’t happen. I was at full gross. I needed all the runway I could get and a bit of ground effect as well. The plane eventually came up, I nursed the flaps out and instead of turning toward the ridge, I pointed the nose downstream and eventually into a spiraling climb. We enjoyed the view of the river and canyon below, and eventually we had the altitude to clear the ridge. My departure that morning with just the packs had given me a false sense of performance.

Even after the performance lessons I had gotten the day before, I was still surprised at how flat and anemic my otherwise-peppy 180 is when it’s fully loaded and the day is warmer. I was beyond glad that I had called in a favor to get the packs ferried separately.

Weight Vs. Performance

The most significant effects of gross-weight operations are experienced at the beginning of a flight rather than the end. It drastically increases your takeoff distance and reduces both the rate and, as a result, the angle of climb. To put it into perspective, a Cessna 206 at gross weight flies like a 182. On a hot day, it flies like a 172. If you are at a high-altitude field on a hot day, it will fly like a 152.

In the end, my above-average family called for some above-average planning. At full gross, it is no big whoop to depart my 9000-foot-long home runway, but it was not an option with the 900 feet available at a back-country strip. If you are going into short strips it is reasonable to leave things behind and come back later for the rest of the load. The lesson I learned is if you fill your plane with above-average people, expect below-average performance.

What Is Max Gross Weight, Anyway?

Maximum gross weight is a certification standard. It’s parameterized around both the structural and flight characteristics of aircraft. Unless you are involved in aircraft certification, you’re unlikely to have seen or read relevant sections of the FARs, but some of it should be familiar to you. For example, you should know that, at gross weight, the wings should stay on and the airframe should remain undamaged when the airframe is stressed to as much as 3.8G and 4.4G for Normal and Utility categories, respectively. Those standards—structural airframe G-loading limits—are in FAR Part 23, which defines how to test and prove an airframe is up to the task.

Part 23 also states that the landing gear must survive a specified drop test for static and dynamic loading. There are several different methods for this but, as the name implies, it actually involves dropping the loaded airframe from a specified height a certain number of times. One drop test must simulate a descent at 1.2 times the maximum designed vertical descent rate, assuming the lift and aircraft weight are equal. An even more brutal test is the landing gear drop test at 1.5 times the load limit. If the landing gear holds, the plane is good to go.

Finally, the formula for defining maximum certified gross weight includes some performance numbers for climbout and balked landing scenarios, including parameters for single-engine performance in a multi-engine airplane. The maximum gross weight basically requires an aircraft to be able to eke out a 1.2-3.5 percent gradient climb depending on whether the scenario is a balked landing or a single-engine climbout).

What does all this mean for you the typical pilot thinking about loading an airplane to its limits? One thing it means is a well-maintained certified aircraft is capable of gross-weight operations subject to those limits. For example, your aircraft can withstand G loading, land pretty hard and not suffer damage at its gross weight.

None of this, however, means its performance will be adequate for what you have in mind.

Gross Weight Advice from a Backcountry Gear Hauler

“Don’t rush,” said Pete Nelson, owner of Middle Fork Aviation, a Part 135 operator flying gross-weight loads into the Idaho backcountry for a living. “You will get to altitude eventually, but if it’s hot and you’re fully loaded, you have to be very patient.

“The only thing a gross weight plane does well is descend, so don’t turn toward the hills, or a ridge or higher terrain until they are below you,” said Nelson. “When climb performance is low, all your escape routes are below you. Your out is knowing where the descending terrain is.

“You stall at a faster speed at gross weight,” said Nelson. “So you have to land a little faster, which means more momentum to arrest in the flare and rollout. When you’re heavy, you don’t want a hard landing. If you get too slow because you want to land short, you run the risk of getting a porpoise or oscillation started.”

Mike Hart is an Idaho-based commercial/IFR pilot with more than 1000 hours and proud owner of a 1946 Piper J-3 Cub and a Cessna 180. His is also the Idaho liason to the Recreational Aviation Foundation.

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Aviation Safety magazine.

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From the unintended consequences file comes this: The Third Class medical exemption rips away the last vestiges of logic—if there ever was any—for retaining the weight limit for light sport aircraft. If you can fly a 6000-pound airplane without a medical, why are you limited to 1320 pounds under essentially the same conditions? The whole thing has a Monty Python sort of silliness to it.

Against a mountain of data that shows medical certification has zero measureable impact on flight safety and that limiting weight probably doesn’t do much either, it’s time to re-examine and eliminate or change the weight restrictions on the light sport segment.

To be fair, the weight limit wasn’t really about safety, but economics. The idea was that the LSA weight limit could be set in such a way as to include some legacy airframes like Cubs and Taylorcraft, but not so many that it would stifle development of new, innovative light sport airframes. I would call this notion a noble failure. It honestly may have made sense at the time, but in retrospect, the idea of ASTM committees and the FAA attempting consensus decision-making on what will sell and how markets behave is dubious at best. Of course, it wasn’t all about that. When this was being discussed at the turn of the last century, the people developing it had to divine not just what would make sense, but also what the FAA would buy off on. Segueing back to Python, you’ll recall the demand to find a shrubbery. It was like that.

The weight limit had another effect. It would presumably result in airframes that cost less to manufacture. People who should know better often say the fact that the typical LSA retails for about $135,000 shows that light sport has been a failure. I continue to believe this is wrong. A two-place light sport costs about a third what a certified four-place light aircraft costs and the way things are trending, that will be soon be a quarter. Light sport prices have not escalated much.

True, airplanes like the Icon A5 have blown through the typical price points, but the fact remains, light sport airplanes are, on the whole, much cheaper than new certified airplanes. They generally deliver respectable performance, and are easy to fly and cheap to operate. And yeah, I know all about the comparison to used certified aircraft and I’ve made the argument. But the point was, is and always will be new airplanes. And new airplanes that are accessible and in tune with the easier-to-achieve light sport pilot certificate. 

I think it's a common misconception that the facilitators of light sport airplanes promised cheap airframes. I've searched my archives and never found such promises, although people in the industry did promise airplanes that were cheaper than certified examples. And that is, indeed, what we have. What we don't have is a burgeoning market; we have a lukewarm market well in keeping with aviation in general. Hotcakes, we ain't.

But consider this: Last year, 946 piston aircraft were manufactured worldwide, according to GAMA data. Just over 200 of those--22 percent--were light sport aircraft. The actual number of airplanes is actually not accurate because GAMA's data sweep doesn't include many European manufacturers like Pipistrel, Aeropro and Czech Sport Aircraft. If all of those were totaled, I suspect the light end of the market would be closer to 50 percent. I don't know about you, but I'd rather have those sales than not, even if dreams of mosquito swarms of LSAs have been long since dashed.

Back to the weight question: If you were king and could raise the light sport weight limit, what would you set as the higher weight? Would you even change it all? And do you think it would make any difference?

Let’s unpack this a little. Under the current rule, a light sport airplane is limited to two seats, limited to a single reciprocating engine, has a 1320-pound max gross (1430 pounds if float equipped) and an 890-pound max empty weight. Speed in level flight is limited to 120 knots indicated.

In practice, there are some problems with all this. The 1320-pound limit must be among the top five most operationally ignored limitations in aviation, with cloud clearance and currency right up there with it. The speed restriction is also a mere guideline for the unimaginative. I’ve seen 130 indicated in more than one LSA I’ve flown. The reciprocating engine requirement was presumably meant to simplify things and/or keep some bright bulb from stuffing a turbine into an LSA, but all it has done is complicate gaining approval for electric-powered aircraft. All it needs is a language fix. No one knows when that will happen, if ever. 

So how to approach this? I wouldn’t leave it as it is. The rule is just illogical as it exists now. You could eliminate “light” and just call it sport aircraft; still two seats, but say a weight limit under 6000 pounds, no speed limit. Let the market and insurers sort it out. This is sort of where the Part 23 revision was supposed to go but probably won’t in its final form. This level of hands-off regulation is likely to cause fatal clutching of pearls in the FAA and Congress, so it’s unrealistic.

How about an incremental approach? Here’s one of the ridiculous things about light sport aircraft. CubCrafters’ Carbon Cub and American Legend’s Super Legend are both essentially Super Cubs, which in the certified form have a max gross weight of 1750 pounds and no restrictions on max empty weight. So it takes some pretty serious heroics to keep these airplanes within weight limits that are, in the end, now arbitrary, since it’s quite clear the market is awash with new, innovative airframe designs and legacy airplanes haven’t stilted this development.

Second, when I was at Diamond Aircraft a few years ago, Peter Maurer said the company had discussed offering the DA20 or something like it as an LSA. But it demurred when an analysis showed that to achieve the empty weight, it would have to trim nearly 300 pounds of weight out of the airframe, all of it structure. While that would make the airplane structurally more efficient, structural efficiency is antagonistic to durability and possibly safety and crashworthiness. Icon found this to be true when it petitioned the FAA for a higher weight limit to build in spin resistance. Similarly, LSAs are sometimes too weight restricted to accommodate full-aircraft parachute systems and crashworthy seats.

With all this in mind, I’d peg the maximum LSA weight 500 pounds higher than it is now—say 1800 pounds--and let the market chew on it for a while. I’d also let whatever legacy airplanes fit that guideline—that would include Cessna 150s—to be flown under the light sport rule. I just don’t see an economic or safety downside. The upside is that higher weights will add value to light sport airplanes and at least one manufacturer told me the company would enjoy a few more sales as a result.

As far as I can tell, there’s no active proposal to raise the limit circulating in ASTM or the FAA. EAA was rumored to be pursuing it, but the association says its not an active proposal. But I think this should go on the to-do list.  Even though it’s rarely been so, we should keep trying to pursue regulation supported by logic and data rather than emotion and politics. Yeah, I know. That sounds like the rantings of a crackhead, but sometimes even I have moments of lucidity.


The foregoing is opinion and commentary based on disclosed facts. AVweb welcomes other points of view, including guest blogs. 

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Daher surprised us all with a clever, self-deploying lav for the back of the TBM 950. At the touch of a button, it springs into action. AVweb shot this demo video recently.


Hundreds of pilots filled a theater in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada on Wednesday to watch a preview of Sully, the much-hyped account of the Miracle on the Hudson. There were some minor quibbles but Sandy Dubrow, who was among the pilots, told AVweb's Russ Niles the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.


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